Kylie Moore-Gilbert is still in jail in Iran. Two years on, ‘quiet diplomacy’ has failed the Australian academic. We contend it’s an outdated strategy, flawed in a world where leaders are influenced by multiple factors including intense global media scrutiny and inescapable social media. We discuss this with Peter Greste and his father, Juris, who retained us to help sustain a very public campaign that led to Peter’s 2015 release from jail in Cairo.
Peter Wilkinson, Peter Greste, Juris Greste, thanks for your time. The Australian government has approached Kylie Moore-Gilbert’s incarceration with a “quiet diplomatic” approach, Peter Greste what would have happened to you if your family employed the same tactics?
Well, we’ve really got no way of knowing what would’ve happened if we’d taken a different approach, but personally, I’m absolutely convinced that the noisy public campaign that we had really was absolutely vital in getting me out of prison. If it wasn’t for that campaign, I would still be in Egypt.
Juris did the Australian government talk to you about “quiet diplomacy” at any stage early on.
Not that I could say that they spoke about “quiet diplomacy”. Clearly, they made it clear that they would prefer to use the kind of usual diplomatic channels and diplomatic message and we were not going to challenge them on that, but at the same time, we felt that we had to be proactive ourselves. In other words, a few meetings down the track they agreed with us that we should work on the two tacts. One was, the family strategies, family efforts, and we were very deliberate about coordinating what we did with what they did through the channels.
Peter Wilkinson, can you break down the strategy you employed? What did you do? How did it work?
So when I became involved, we were very conscious of four prongs to our strategy. One was to keep the diplomacy going. The second was political, to engage with Julie Bishop who was then foreign minister. The third was a legal strategy because lawyers were involved all over the place, as you remember, and the fourth was the media and social media. And the media and social media basically kept everyone else on their toes and we had to be very careful not to do too much media and not to be too aggressive in our messaging because we’d lock Al-Sisi, the president of Egypt at the time, who was responsible for Peter’s jailing, we’d lock him into a position.
So our messaging was very gentle. It was about the… Very much on the message, not the messenger. We weren’t attacking Al-Sisi at all, just that an awful mistake had been made and a wrong needed to be righted. And the importance with the media also was… I always felt that if we weren’t doing media, the defect would. The department of foreign affairs and trade, the diplomats would relax back into their chairs and it would slip down the list of priorities. Did you feel that Juris?
Absolutely. I agree entirely. Yeah. Maybe, kind of, exaggerating a little, but really in the end with the kind of perspective of time looking back, I feel that the media campaign actually drove everything.
And likewise with the foreign minister, Julie Bishop, then now Marise Payne. The task is to keep her on her toes and we, as you’ll remember, we had a direct line to Julie Bishop through a journalist who was a friend of hers. And Julie was very responsive to when we did call her and say, “look, we need a bit of extra grunt from your side.”
Okay. You’ve just spoken about how careful you were in framing, the message. Obviously, you couldn’t control a lot of the social media commentary. Were you concerned at all about what members of the public were saying about some of the more rabid criticisms of the Egyptians that were coming through on social media?
No. I don’t remember that we were worried about it, what I do remember… Back then, we understood that the diplomats on both sides, in Egypt and in Australia, could discern what was our messaging, which was very strong and what was kind of the rabid messaging about “corrupt government” and “overthrow the dictator” and all that kind of stuff. So, no. We weren’t concerned about it because people could separate the two.
I would like to think that what there was of the more kind of extreme commentary was kind of balanced, at least. I’d like to think, in fact, drowned out by our very deliberate endeavours, not to offend and not to rant and rave, to recognize the cultural differences. I remember getting some advice from some Middle East specialists in how to start the letter that we wrote to the president and the appropriate greetings with which to conclude it. So we were very conscious of that aspect of it. And I truly believe that that had some positive results.
Yeah. One of the very important things, Peter was us getting your father, Juris and your mother, Lois and your two brothers, Andrew and Mike to be very active because they all come across as a fairly average Australian family, if you know what I mean. They’re not. None of them are rabid. One of them’s, one of your brothers is a policeman, the other one’s a farmer and their ability to get across the message that you weren’t a crazy Al Jazeera committed journalist, committed to a particular cause. That was very important for us to get across to Al-Sisi, not just to Al-Sisi, but also the people around him, which was the value of the media and the Twitter, I really believe.
Yeah. And I also know that there was a sustained effort with the campaign that you guys made sure there was a constant process of development so that there was always interest, there was always a story coming up every few weeks.
I remember very clearly we were on the phone to each other all the time, working on strategy and there were quite… You all will sure remember, there were quite strong arguments about what we should do, but it was always whether we should apply more and more pressure on the diplomats or whether we should contact Julie Bishop, or should we do London Media, or should we go to the States? And you’ll remember, eventually, we got Obama involved at least twice, maybe more often to petition on Peter’s behalf. So the media became a very powerful vehicle.
Yes. And we were really media maidens then, but we soon learned little things like you’ve got to prepare for your media, really prepare what you’re going to say and anticipate. We made friends with the media, even in our household, we had some apprehensions at times, how deeply should we get involved? Because we don’t want to be, kind of, completely swallowed up and yet cooperating, supporting the media, acknowledging that they have a job to do, giving them teas and lunches when they were here and all kinds of help to integrate everybody into the ones trust.
Yeah. So for this reason, I can’t understand why they’re going quiet with Kylie Moore-Gilbert. Peter, have you spoken to other people who’ve been in strife in Iran and their experiences?
I haven’t spoken to too many others although I have heard from Jason Rezaian, who is a former Washington Post correspondent who was imprisoned in Iran for, I think almost two years. And he was, in fact, in the same prison as Kylie Moore-Gilbert, that was [crosstalk 00:08:40] within prison under the control of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. But Jason, of course, by definition as a correspondent, is a specialist on the realm of Iranian politics and his view is very explicitly that a public campaign would help. In fact, he struggled to really understand why things have been so quiet and of the past year or so, but also given our experience that unless there was a compelling reason not to go public, that seems to be a much. That seems to be the strategy we’re pursuing.
A fascinating insight. Gentlemen, thank you for your time. We’ll continue to watch this story very closely.
And we keep our fingers crossed that it ends well.
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